Kalispell mathematician tested parts for Apollo 11 flight

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  • Frank Tumbelty is pictured at his home in Kalispell on Thursday. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Frank Tumbelty at his home in Kalispell wearing his Army uniform. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Frank Tumbelty is pictured at his home in Kalispell on Thursday. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Frank Tumbelty at his home in Kalispell wearing his Army uniform. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

Fifty years ago, as the Apollo 11 lunar module prepared for its return journey from the moon, Frank Tumblety turned his ear to the radio.

The Kalispell resident was vacationing in Canada, but didn’t want to miss this historic spaceflight event, America’s first crewed touchdown on the moon.

But something came over the airwaves that sent a chill down his spine.

“They couldn’t get the engine started,” Tumbelty recalled.

The delay in departure was of particular concern to him because the transistor switch that turned the engine on had his stamp of approval on it. Tumbelty was a quality engineer who was responsible for testing the reliability of the transistors used in the Apollo 11 mission. If the three-man crew of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin didn’t make it home, would he be to blame?

“The switch was approved by me and I thought, ‘oh my gosh almighty the switch didn’t work,’” he said, “and if they didn’t make it back, who would they be pointing the finger at?”

Thankfully Tumbelty’s worrying was for naught — the defect was actually caused by a faulty wire and eventually the astronauts were able to lift off, landing safely in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.

Tumbelty is humble when he speaks of his accomplishments, but did enjoy being part of such a historic event.

“The project … the type of work that I was in, I found really fascinating and challenging,” he said. “Some people could care less about the moon … [but] the scientific community thought it was absolutely fantastic — you might say out of this world.”

Tumbelty’s work for NASA continues to live on in his works of fiction. The Apollo 11 is one of many life adventures that have inspired his writing, the basis for tales such as “The Beginning” and “Ziggy Twinkledust and Venus” from his book, “Twelve WOW Short Stories.”

“I was an idea man all my life,” he explained.

Prior to a career in mathematics, he was a military man and served for three years during the Korean War. Although Tumbelty was officially given a post in finance, he said the first role of any soldier in an active war zone was infantry. The second night in country, Tumbelty was assigned night watch at a guard station along a roadway. Out of the blackness, he heard a barrage of enemy fire from the camp down the road and before he knew it, the Koreans were headed directly for him. He fled his station, where he was a sitting duck, and hid with his rifle in a nearby ditch.

“That’s not brilliance on my part, that’s survival,” he said of the incident.

For reasons that Tumbelty may never know, the Korean troops veered away from his location before spotting him.

“I will remember that until the day I die,” he said.

For all he’s done in the past eight decades, in the Army, for NASA and in mathematics, Tumbelty is most proud of his family.

When asked to identify his greatest accomplishment, he smiles easily.

“When I proposed to my wife,” Tumbelty said, “and she said yes.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at (406) 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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